Manchester United vs. Wolves: United find their match


Manchester United missed out on an opportunity to close the gap on 4th-placed Chelsea with another draw (their third draw this season) against Wolves.

On a day when Manchester United fans remembered the tragic Munich air disaster, Solskjær’s team didn’t pay homage to spirit of The Busby Babes; instead, they were afraid of attacking.

After a good last few days in the transfer window, there was some optimism in the air around Manchester United prior to the match against Wolves. Bruno Fernandes had finally been signed after almost six months of speculation to add some much needed creativity to the team, and most expected one of the most prolific midfielders in Europe to kick on and make the jump to the Premier League, especially against a Wolves side that takes a more continental approach to the game as opposed to a British one.

Well, he made the jump. Immediately, he looked comfortable in his new surroundings (although the large Portuguese contingent at Wolves would certainly have not harmed his acclimatization). Instead, Manchester United were the ones unable to reward his approach with a cutting edge. The starting eleven looked an attacking one; however, the approach from the get go was a defensive one. The emphasis was more on stopping Wolves’ counter-attack as opposed to creating their own attacks. United almost seemed scared of getting caught too far up the pitch (which is rather ironic considering they often try to pull that trick on most teams better than them).

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The team seemed geared to think of defense before attack; some of the quick thinking displayed while stopping counter-attacks may, perhaps, have been in better use around the opposition penalty area. United made a lot of passes around Wolves’ penalty area, but none which properly penetrated them. Fernandes did bring the ability to create good combinations, and with good passers such as Mata and Fred around, United did look pretty. But that was pretty much it. Everything that went into the box was stopped by a Wolves boot. To pass through a side such as Wolves, sharp pass and move combinations are required in and around the area. There’s no other way you can pull enough defenders out of position otherwise.

United’s front three (it was almost a two, actually, Juan Mata was a pseudo right winger, as usual) didn’t have that on the evening. There’s little to no combination play between Martial and James; currently, Martial just edges being a Premier League player due to his ability when he has good players around him. He’s not the sort of player to grab the game by the scruff of its neck, he’s more like a sailboat; great with the wind behind him, less than useful without, and certainly a liability with the wind against him. James definitely looks like a Championship player now; all the physical and mental ingredients to be a good footballer and loyal servant, but not much else. There’s little end product to his crosses, and his passing leaves a lot to be desired. He’s great on the break, but pretty useless trying to break a team down; ideal Championship and bottom half material.

Meanwhile, the midfield, once again was more functional than creative. Even with the addition of Fernandes, Manchester United’s midfield were lacking in creativity. Things got a bit better once Juan Mata moved into a central role in the second half (probably because Andreas Pereira was shifted out to the left). It was Juan Mata’s link up with Anthony Martial which brought most of the rewards in the game; they’re probably the two uninjured players who have some sort of attacking chemistry going on at United. This is despite one rather embarrassing moment in which the ball had broken free near the penalty spot, and Mata was bearing down on it, but Martial – having no spatial awareness whatsoever – went for it and inevitably got in the way of what was a presentable scoring chance. Of course, once Bruno Fernandes gets up to speed, I’m sure he’ll be able to link up well too, and when Paul Pogba and Rashford are back, United will have an attacking quartet which will certainly be able to influence games more heavily than what they have currently mustered.

Defensively, a couple of positives did emerge out this game, however. United looked pretty solid, with the entire back four doing well. Apart from the one moment Diogo Jota seemed to slalom into the United box without actually slaloming at all, United didn’t give much away. United were comparatively more authoritative when dealing with set pieces as well. But it’s a game of small margins; Saïss would probably have had that headed opportunity from the free kick in nine times out of ten, and if that’d gone in, we probably would have had a different tone about the game right now. Luke Shaw managed to shut out Adama Traoré in a night many expected a humiliation (and in the process forgetting the attacking side of his game). Fred, once again, enhanced his reputation as an all-round midfielder, always ready to stop a Wolves breakaway.

Overall, though, Manchester United looked at about the same level as Wolves; a lot of their players could very well have been playing for the United of today, and they probably would’ve done a better job of it. Quality-wise, there isn’t much to separate these sides at the moment, and that shows on the Premier League table. Perhaps the return of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, and Scott McTominay may spur this side on to a top four finish, but as things stand, Manchester United are set for another season in the Europa League.

All stats via WhoScored.

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